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In most years, Rhonda Fields would have been a shoo-in. But 10 months after her nomination to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Fields — a highly respected veteran prosecutor who also happens to be African-American — is still waiting for a hearing. Capitol Hill aides and observers of the confirmation process don’t offer a consistent explanation for the delay, beyond the partisan election-year politics that have snagged dozens of nominations. In July, the Congressional Black Caucus charged Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, with racism for his allegedly slow processing of African-American nominees, including Fields — an accusation that Hatch termed defamatory. Hatch cited Justice Department data that he said showed little or no racial difference in the handling of nominees. But now, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Fields’ chief advocate on Capitol Hill, says she has picked up word of a new and “very troubling” issue concerning the nomination. “We have heard that there may be an effect here of the controversy surrounding the assignment of cases by Clinton administration judges,” Norton says. She says she’s referring to “a buzz going around” the Hill rather than to statements made directly to her. Since last spring, special counsel Joe Whitley, an Atlanta lawyer, has been looking into allegations made by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., and other conservatives that Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson steered politically sensitive criminal cases against Democratic fund-raisers to judges nominated by President Bill Clinton. Fields, although not a subject of Whitley’s probe, may have been indirectly caught up in it, Norton says. As long as the case-assignment issue is pending, Norton has heard, Senate Republicans may have decided not to confirm any new judges to the D.C. District Court. Jeanne Lopatto, Hatch’s spokeswoman, says the senator “has a policy of not commenting on specific nominees.” Concerning Fields, Lopatto says only that she is not aware that any hearings have been scheduled. Fields’ credentials are not at issue. A government lawyer since graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1973, Fields has been a supervisor at the U.S. attorney’s office for 11 years and has served as chief of its criminal division since 1997. She declined comment. Although several Clinton nominees have been approved by the Senate in recent months, judicial nominations have lately run into a series of logjams. On Sept. 12, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., announced he was holding up all judicial nominees whose names have not yet come to the Senate floor. Inhofe is protesting Clinton’s decision last month to give Bill Lann Lee a recess appointment as assistant attorney general for civil rights. Six days later, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., placed a hold on four nominees whose names have reached the floor, in an effort to call Republican senators’ attention to the delays in processing judges who have been put forward by the administration. But in the Byzantine politics of judicial confirmation, things often change rapidly and with little notice. Norton, who says she has worked closely with Hatch for years, still holds out hope for the Fields nomination. “Orrin Hatch has been extremely fair to me,” says Norton. “He has respected my nominees in the past, and that’s why I feel I still have a chance.” Of the 13 active judges on the District Court, nine are Clinton appointees who were helped along by Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress. “Not until [James] Klein did I have any trouble,” Norton says, referring to the Public Defender Service supervisor whose District Court nomination has been in limbo since 1998. “I thought that I surely could get one person through from the defense side, with the endorsement of U.S. attorney officials, but apparently not.” Norton says prosecutor Fields “is just the type of nominee that Orrin Hatch himself would have recommended. She’s what I thought was a sure thing. I intend to speak with Senator Hatch one more time before the train leaves the station.” As Congress winds down, liberals have made last-ditch efforts to get women and minority judges confirmed. On Sept. 8, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, in a letter to the presidential candidates, pointed out that the Senate confirmed 13 judges in October and November of the election year of 1992. On Sept. 14, seven senators, led by Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., called for the immediate approval of nine pending female nominees.

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